On Friday 1 July 2016, in London, I witnessed and was part of one of the most incredible events I have ever seen.

The day marked 100 years since the start of the Battle of the Somme - the bloodiest battle in British military history with 19,240 men dying on the first day alone.

To mark the Somme centenary, 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary, commissioned Turner-prize winning artist Jeremy Deller to create a modern memorial to commemorate the occasion. In collaboration with the National Theatre’s director, Rufus Norris, some 1400 volunteers (men aged 16-52) took part in the UK-wide ‘we’re here because we’re here’ event. They volunteers marched across the UK dressed as WWI soldiers in historically accurate uniforms. They represented the 15 regiments that saw loss of life that day.

“I wanted to make a contemporary memorial to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, one that moved around the UK with an unpredictability in which the participants took the work directly to the public.” - Jeremy Deller

A ground-breaking event

From Shetland to Plymouth, 27 organisations collaborated on the event, which was produced by Birmingham Repertory Theatre and the National Theatre. Breaking new ground due to it’s immense scale and reach and the amount of people involved, it’s the first time the three national theatres have worked together on a joint project.

The soldiers never spoke, apart from when joining together in haunting song, chanting ‘we’re here because we’re here‘ to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. Instead they handed out cards to the public in shopping centres, on public transport and on the streets. Each soldier carried these cards that told their story and when they were killed. The interruption into everyday live making the whole thing even more poignant.

“This work by Jeremy Deller is a truly national piece of theatre and is apowerful way to remember the men who went off to fight 100 years ago. I also hope it will serve as a catalyst to strengthen ties with theatres and communities across the UK.” - Rufus Norris

A nation stands still

It was a remarkable thing to see, I saw people crying, women going up to and hugging the soldiers and people in general stopping whatever they were doing to watch and witness. To see such busy parts of London come to a standstill like that was incredible and showed the impact the message had and the magnitude of what happened back in 1916. The reaction on social media was vast, with tens-of-thousands of posts on Instagram alone and Twitter saw the hashtag #wearehere trending throughout the day.

It couldn’t have come at a better time. As a nation, we are in a chaotic state, form Brexit to elections, the rise in hate crime and an uncertain future. To have a moment, a national coming together, for a cause that not only greatly affected us but our brothers in Europe too, could not have been more poignant.

“1 July 1916 saw 57,470 casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, of whom nearly 20,000 died: it was the bloodiest day in British military history. Taking part in ‘we’re here because we’re here’, has given hundreds of young people across the UK the chance to find out more about the Somme, and in some cases discover the stories of family members who fought in the war. Working alongside brilliant artists, directors and theatres on this astonishing project will be an experience they will never forget.” Jenny Waldman, Director of 14-18 NOW

Jeremy Deller and Rufus Norris will discuss ‘we’re here because we’re here’ at the Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre on Monday 11 July at 6pm.

Tickets on sale via the NT Box Office (020) 7452 3000 and online at nationaltheatre.org.uk

Written by Neil Thornton
London-based coffee drinker. Editor by day, blogger by whatever time he finds spare.